By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 6, 2005
Marissa Sierra knows, from her training and experience in her homeland of Mexico as a marketer and graphic designer, the importance of designing the most effective, comprehensive marketing strategy to best serve a client and reach the consumer.
As the new director of sacramental formation of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, she is eager to apply her skills and expertise to help churches plan and implement bilingual confirmation programs for 10th-graders to help unite the Hispanic and Anglo communities.
She’s been “flying high” since starting her position in July, inspired by her father who worked his way out of dire poverty in Mexico by developing his own business, first selling kites and now, at 76, going strong selling electronics.
“What I’m doing now is going out to parishes and selling my product, which is this confirmation program, and trying to sell people that this is a good idea and a good program and that it will bring benefits. It won’t bring money, but it will bring souls, and we’ll all go to heaven.”
She feels both at peace and passionate about her position to serve God so directly through the church. And while she holds a master’s degree in marketing from the Universidad del Mayab and a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the bilingual University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico, in 2005 she will start a master’s degree program in theology through a distance-learning program with Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
Sierra, 37, never dreamed that she’d be working for the church when she took a month-long trip in 2000 from her hometown in Merida, Mexico, to visit friends in Georgia. Back home lay persons only work for the church as volunteers and are generally not encouraged to study the faith. While raised Catholic, for example, “I had no idea the Catechism of the Catholic Church existed, ” she said, smiling often, and she had never heard of an adult initiation program.
“I never expected to be working for the Catholic Church, never in my life. It just keeps happening and happening and happening. I believe God has a good plan for me.”
Her new adventure in faith unfolded gradually. While in Georgia she became restless and decided to apply for a job and within a week—voila—she found one, working as an office administrator for Airport Electronics, where she coordinated merchandise for two stores at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“I’m very active, very creative—I always get a job. I said, ‘Oh yeah, why not. I’ll spend six months and then go back’ … At the same time I was learning a lot about God. I believe that kept me here. It was like falling in love with somebody. That person I was falling in love with was God. I think that kept me going. Since I’ve been here I’ve been like doing a workshop every month.”
New in town and single, she started volunteering to teach catechesis at the Lindbergh Mission of the Cathedral of Christ the King and later, in 2001, became the coordinator of Spanish religious education at the Cathedral. There she coordinated the program and trained catechists. She found that many of the Mexicans from rural areas knew little about Catholic teachings and didn’t understand how formation programs could take months, as, in their experience, priests sometimes only visited churches in remote areas once a year and there was no formal sacramental preparation.
Their experience of sacramental preparation “was like RCIA for one day,” Sierra said.
And she learned of their challenges like the language barrier and the children speaking Spanish, but reading and writing in English. The children “love to learn about God, but you have to teach them in English because the books have to be in English.”
In Georgia she was forced to practice the English she had learned in school much more than when she lived years earlier in Miami where Spanish is widely spoken.
“I was very interested in learning about the Catholic faith because in Mexico you cannot read any books on theology unless you want to be a priest or nun … We just learn our faith through the tradition.”
In Merida, for three years Sierra had her own graphic design firm, Oh Design, coordinating graphic design and public relations campaigns for clients.
“Starting my own business was lots of fun … It was like my baby,” she recalled. She worked as general manager for about two years for Radio City, where she organized business planning and development for four stores. From June 1997 to December 1998, she worked as a professor of graphic design at the Universidad del Mayab. She went to Miami after college to find better work opportunities and worked from 1992-94 as a graphic designer for Berpat Graphics and as an assistant to the art director from the International Publishing Co. of America, Miami, before returning to Mexico to be near family.
Coming from a predominantly Catholic country with less diversity, she sees the division in the church of North Georgia and feels a special calling to build up a united body of Christ in youth ministry. In the larger metro area, parishes often have separate English youth ministries and Spanish-combined youth and young adult programs.
“Many youth ministers have asked me to teach them Spanish.”
Her parents traveled around the world when she was growing up and would bring her back souvenirs from various countries, which instilled in her early on an openness and interest in the diversity of cultures in the church and the world. She saw how at Christ the King the approximately 15 Hispanic teens and the 70-80 Anglo teens were in separate youth programs but then became friends with each other through the bilingual confirmation program. She worked with then youth minister to Anglo youth Nicholas Azar to develop the eight-class program taught by bilingual persons who spoke in English but translated, as needed, the materials to Spanish.
“We developed a very interactive program with the kids, teachers and leaders … They spent time together, and now they know each other … They enjoy being part of their own cultural background but at the same time get exposed to the other culture in a very positive way.”
The retreat and service project were also organized together, and the Spanish choir joined in for the confirmation Mass.
Deacon Lloyd Sutter, senior administrator for the Department of Religious Education and Faith Formation, said that Sierra was invited to work there because of the effectiveness of the confirmation program in bridging the gap between Hispanic and Anglo parish communities.
“What I’ve done is essentially have her, in phase one, do on a diocesan level what she did at the Cathedral—to do a bilingual youth confirmation program. Phase two is to do the same thing in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults,” Sutter said. “She did it in a parish more effectively than anybody I know, and we wanted to do that and are being asked to do that by pastors.”
He feels this is a step toward a more integrated, bilingual model of education in parishes for Hispanic youth, who usually know more English than their parents.
“We have a challenge of getting beyond side-by-side construction within our parishes (where groups) have effectively nothing to do with each other.”
He said that they already have a Spanish and an English catechetical certification program “so we’ll bring sacramental formation in line with the way we do catechetical certification. Every document we publish is in English and Spanish.”
He added that 53 out of 93 archdiocesan parishes have Mass in Spanish but only a small number do a bilingual confirmation program, which is not now being mandated but encouraged. Some small parishes need it to save money.
Sierra understands firsthand the importance of providing creative, well-planned strategies for reaching youth, as she herself left the church as a rebellious teen before confirmation and didn’t return for 17 years. Years later she decided to make a retreat and afterward began reconnecting with the church and learning the faith from a Jesuit priest at her parish. She practically worked full-time there as a volunteer, planning retreats for children and youth.
“I believe (faith seeking) is a part of life when you’re searching for something to fulfill yourself.”
As a marketer at heart, Sierra is eager to serve her clients in parishes on demand and brings to her new position an understanding of challenges faced in parish programs and the need to be flexible from her work at the Cathedral, where she still volunteers. She is also available to provide general support to all youth ministries, even those without any Hispanic members, in following archdiocesan confirmation guidelines. She’ll be speaking on multiculturalism as well.
“It’s not just teaching religion. It’s how we approach things, the strategy we use to deliver the message to sell the program … It’s how we’re going to take the message until the students receive it and receive it well,” she said. “It’s a challenge to help each other build community and be together.”
She admits to sometimes missing the corporate world, where profit is the bottom line and it is easier to separate work from her personal life; now she routinely gets calls at home.
But she’s eager and enthusiastic to pour out her creative juices and marketing perspicacity to build God’s kingdom in North Georgia, and is open to whatever God brings her way. She now sees clearly that people were created by God and his work is accomplished through them.
“Having a marketing degree changes your mind and perspective on life. Mine is more open and willing to take the changes, whatever comes along. It’s kind of like being in the U.S. I’m here. I have to be able to learn the language and culture and working for the Catholic Church I have to learn it and embrace it as a part of my life, my new life,” she said. “If I die tomorrow, I can face God telling him I have accomplished his mission as much as I could … We have to serve him in our thoughts, our job, our personal life, serving him all the time. It becomes a lifestyle. Not that it wasn’t before but maybe not completely.”